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Area parents still wary as formula shortage begins to ease

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Formula Shelves

Formula is slowly beginning to reappear on the shelves of area retailers, but some specialty brands remain scarce.

Retailers are beginning to see baby formula slowly return to the shelves, but the shortage that propelled parents into a panicked frenzy to locate nourishment for their little ones has left some with shortage shock and others whose children rely on specialty formula still struggling to maintain a supply.

Baby formula began disappearing off the shelves earlier this year after Abbot Nutrition recalled some of its products following reports of bacterial infections in infants who consumed them. The recall completely depleted entire stocks for some infants who relied solely on those formulas for their nutrition.

The Recall

“The Elecare recall was an absolute nightmare,” said Laura Hand, whose daughter, Evie, was on Elecare Jr., one of the formulas recalled by Abbott.

Hand said her daughter was about halfway through her 15-can monthly supply when she learned they’d all been recalled.

“Then it was afterhours, calling her pediatrician to find out what to do,” the Damascus mom said.

Evie, who’s about to turn two years old, suffers from Short Bowel Syndrome, a condition that prevents her body from absorbing nutrients from food. Her recalled Elecare Jr. was about the only formula she could tolerate.

More than 300 miles away in Alexandria, Brent Blevins and his wife, Emily, found themselves in a similar situation with their now 11-month-old daughter, Ginny Kate. Blevins said his wife was feeding Ginny Kate one night when she happened to look at her phone and learned that their daughter’s formula had been recalled.

“We were kind of freaked out and we started looking at other alternatives, and frankly, there’s not a lot of options available,” Blevins said.

Ginny Kate Blevins

Ginny Kate Blevins’ parents believe they’re going to have to be vigilant for some time to get the formula she needs.

Ginny Kate was diagnosed with a cow’s milk allergy and can only tolerate certain hypoallergenic formulas. The Blevinses learned of the recall on a weekend when Ginny Kate’s pediatrician was unavailable, and so turned to their local CVS for advice.

“CVS gave us some suggestions and we were able to find this other formula and were able to get ahold of some,” Blevins said.

Ginny Kate did well on the formula CVS suggested for a couple of weeks, Blevins said, but then she stopped taking it.

“It was frightening because our daughter was only consuming 10 ounces a day and she was already pretty small,” he explained.

Back in Damascus, Hand was also trying Evie on alternative formulas, none of which agreed with the tot, causing her already delicate digestive system even further discomfort. Meanwhile, Hand worried Evie wasn’t getting the necessary nutrients to grow.

“It was just a nightmare. My anxiety skyrocketed during the recall,” Hand said.

Her anxiety became so intense that her doctor prescribed medication to calm her.

“I had made posts about wanting to just crawl in a ball and cry all night because I had no clue what formula was better and if it was hurting her or harming her belly by trying so many off brands that weren’t recommended specifically from her doctor,” Hand said. “But, when the shortage and recall came, it left us no options but to try the different other brands and see what happens. I don’t like that, ‘Oh, let’s see what happens.’”

About six weeks into the ordeal, Evie was given a prescription for a formula used for feeding children with G-tubes, a device surgically inserted into the stomach allowing access to administer food, liquids and medication. Although Evie’s G-tube had only been used for administering medication at the time, Hand said she did have to use it to feed Evie some of the alternatives she refused orally.

Since Evie got her prescription, it’s been smooth-sailing. “We’re squared away now, thankfully, but gosh, I feel so bad for parents of newborns right now and special needs kids,” Hand said.

The Shortage

The level of stress Hand experienced is something the Blevinses can easily relate to. They were able to find another alternative after Ginny Kate stopped taking the formula CVS recommended,but keeping up a supply for her has proven to be a tough task.

Following the recall, demand for the remaining formula caught up to the short supply.

“It’s a constant strain,” Blevins said, noting that it takes a lot of time and effort to even locate the formula.

“Every time we start to run low, this kind of anxiety sets in and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, where are we going to find our next batch,’” he said, adding “Every time this happens it’s very stressful, it’s kind of like an existential thing.”

A Max Meadows native whose parents and sister still live in Wythe County, Blevins’ family back home has pitched in to help, searching stores from Christiansburg to Bristol for Ginny Kate’s brand of formula. On one occasion, Blevins’ sister even enlisted the help of a friend in France to send formula for her niece.

“That kind of shows the measures we’ve had to go to,” Blevins said.

Solutions of Sorts

Social media has also proven a useful tool for parents. “Formula Finder” groups have cropped up on Facebook for areas all over. A network of mostly moms, the groups alert members to which retailers have certain formulas in stock and sometimes sell or trade formula within the groups.

“My wife met another mom in a parking lot in a shopping center and basically had to pay cash just to get a dozen cans of formula,” Blevins said. “These are the kind of the extreme measures we’ve had to go to.”

“We are seeing that the community is beginning to come together to assist each other as much as possible,” said Breanne Hubbard, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health’s Mount Rogers Health District.

Hubbard pointed to the Wythe Formula Finders Facebook group as an example, noting that that group has had posts for stores in Abingdon, Marion, Dublin and Galax, “indicating that the entire region is working together to help caregivers locate formula.”

Some parents are also using their personal social media more informally, posting what they need or where they’ve seen formula.

“Every time I go in a store, whether I go in there for formula or not, I try to post what’s on the shelf,” said Jeannie Barr.

The Chilhowie mom said she hasn’t had as hard a time finding formula for her five-month-old daughter, Isabelle, as parents of children on specialty formula have, but the scarcity has still made the task much more difficult.

Barr was able to snag a couple of four-packs from a Walmart in Georgia while shopping online when formula first began to fade from the shelves. That small stock gave her a jumpstart on search efforts.

She’s also been able to supplement Isabelle’s formula supply with breast milk. Side effects from medication she is on prevents Barr from relying primarily on breast milk and avoiding the shortage altogether, but being able to supplement with it has helped her find a good balance to meet her daughter’s needs and lessen their need for formula.

Hubbard said health departments within the health district have seen an increased interest in breast feeding since the shortage began.

“We are finding many women are now interested in breastfeeding to avoid the formula issue,” Hubbard said. “Several have reached out for support to increase supply, maintain supply while returning to work, and participate in our Breastfeeding Peer Counselor program for ongoing support and education.”

Hubbard said all WIC (Women Infants and Children) staff are trained in basic breastfeeding support and three lactation counselors work through the district’s eight health departments to help nursing mothers..

“Our goals are to assist mothers [to] meet their and their baby’s needs, and with the known health benefits of breastfeeding, it is an option many moms are considering more seriously due to the formula shortage,” Hubbard said.

In other efforts to help alleviate the burden caused by the shortage, the Virginia WIC program was able to gain the USDA’s approval to expand its substitute list for most formula types to help those who are unable to find the brands that were previously approved for them under WIC.

Hubbard cautioned against turning to at-home formula recipes like those circulating on social media, saying, “Do not use home recipes for making formula and do not dilute formula or alter package instructions. This can have severe, even fatal consequences for an infant. I cannot stress this one enough. Do not do this.”

Hubbard said local WIC staff have been checking stores for formula availability and relaying that information to families, keeping a list of participants on specialty formulas and notifying them when they find it available locally. Non-WIC staff members have also been helping out in this effort.

“They are in regular, daily communication with multiple families and are changing food packages to accommodate what families are able to find,” Hubbard said. “This meets infant needs and avoids the family having to obtain a prescription form.”

Stressed about how and what they may feed their child, WIC participants have been grateful for the assistance.

“I think they can see and feel empathy from our staff and see how hard we are trying to find them options,” said Megan Williams, a WIC nutritionist supervisor for Mount Rogers. “We’ve heard their tears, frustration, disappointment, and sacrifices. They are sacrificing time and money to locate formula—driving from store to store, utilizing family members in other areas to see what’s available, some even giving up money for other needs to purchase online when nothing can be found locally.”

Moving Forward

Although some stocks of formula are starting to replenish, Blevins and Barr believe they’ll have to maintain their current strategies and remain vigilant for the long haul.

“It still concerns me,” Barr said. “I’m not as concerned as I was because I’ve been seeing more on the shelf than there was, but, I guess it’s just one of those worries in the back of my mind.”

Blevins said the shortage seems to be “sorting itself out,” but cautioned that while there seems to be more regular formula now, that’s not the case for the hypoallergenic brands.

With Ginny Kate’s slow growth rate, Blevins said her pediatrician has recommended keeping her on formula a little longer, meaning they’ll continue to battle the shortage for at least a few more months.

“I don’t think we have any choice, really, so we will continue it,” Blevins said of his family’s strategy of locating formula supplies.

Although the shortage has eased some and attention to the issue has waned, Blevins said the recall and shortage both still remain an issue for parents like him and he expects it will likely remain an issue for months more.

He expressed frustration with the Food and Drug Administration, citing whistleblower reports from an employee at Abbott’s Michigan plant that were filed with the FDA in October, months before Abbott voluntarily recalled its formula. Prior to that, the Wall Street Journal reported, a complaint had been filed with OSHA in February 2021.

“It’s extremely disappointing to me that the FDA has let us down, an institution that we trust,” he said. “There were so many warnings from Abbott …. The FDA really let us down, let down so many people who rely on their federal government to tell us we have safe food, safe baby food. To me, that’s very disappointing.”

For parents and caregivers new to or still coming to grips with the struggle, Blevins offered some advice.

“My suggestion would be to always be very proactive in seeking out formula. Don’t wait until you run low. And, don’t be afraid to ask friends, family, even strangers for help, people at your church, social media, where you work. Talk about it openly. This isn’t something you should keep quiet about or be ashamed of. Talk openly about what you need and plan ahead.”

Likewise, Hubbard said WIC recipients should check the WIC website for substitutes for their formula brands, and, Williams said, “Please call us before using SNAP benefits to purchase a formula that WIC may cover. Check with us first to see how we can help you, so you can make that food dollar go farther.”

The Virginia WIC supplemental list and additional guidance can be found on the Virginia Department of Health’s website at www.vdh.virginia.gov/wic.

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